Teaching Ethics to MBAs

Written on May 15, 2017 by Santiago Iñiguez in Education

By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Executive President of IE University

A common criticism targeted at business schools is that they do not give sufficient importance to teaching business ethics to their students.

This may have been true in the past. But for several years now, most MBA programs have included diverse modules on business ethics and social responsibility. Furthermore, the most relevant international agencies in business education, such EQUIS, AACSB, or AMBA, require that business schools deliver specific courses and sessions on this matter in order to award accreditation.

So, it is simply not true to suggest that MBAs are not exposed to ethical issues.

Whether this is sufficient, of course, is open to question – and goes to the heart of the debate about what sort of managers we want to produce in future. An arguably more nuanced alternative is not to make ethics a specific subject, but to incorporate it into all subjects. This was the option recommended by the Aspen Institute’s Center for Business Education. Its Beyond Gray Pinstripes survey assesses business schools in terms of how they incorporate ethical and sustainability issues into their teaching.

Thomas Piper, co-author of Can Ethics Be Taught and a distinguished Professor at Harvard Business School, also argued that the best way to teach business ethics is not just by delivering a specific course looking at leadership and social responsibility, but by addressing these questions throughout the whole MBA program. First, he says, because, “ethical dilemmas arise in all functional areas and at all levels of the organization.”[i]   Second, because when teachers avoid the subject, “we send an unintended but powerful signal that they are not a priority”. Effective business ethics teaching depends in large part on its inclusion across the board as an integral part of acquiring a business education. An important message for all faculty: their responsibility in dealing with the deontological aspects of management, in their respective subjects.

At the same time, it is essential that teaching ethics be done with the same rigor and to the same high standards that characterize the rest of a school’s teaching. Aine Donovan, the Executive Director of the Dartmouth Ethics Institute, asked: “Does teaching ethics in general help counter individual cheating and group collusion?” Her answer was: no. “Unless taught properly by people who understand what they’re doing, the result can be worse than no ethics training at all.” [ii]

MBA students have also been accused of unethical behavior in their studies. In 2006, a report on cheating surveying 5,300 graduate students in the United States and Canada, conducted by Donald McCabe, Professor of Management and Global Business at New Jersey’s Rutgers University and President of the CAI was picked up by a wide range of media. The report revealed that 56 per cent of graduate business students admitted to cheating in the past year, as compared to 54 per cent of graduate engineering students, 50 per cent of physical science students, 49 per cent of medical and health-care students, 45 per cent of law students, 43 per cent of liberal arts students, and 39 per cent of social science and humanities students. Previous reports published by the CAI were as alarming: the results of a 2005 survey of 50,000 undergraduates at more than 60 US universities showed that on most campuses, 70 per cent of students admitted to some cheating. This diagnosis may be aggravated since, as McCabe said, it’s likely that more students cheat than admit to it.

Do more students cheat nowadays than, say, four decades ago? It is debatable, although some analysts explain that easy access to almost infinite sources on the web and the flourishing of virtual communities of cheaters have contributed to rampant cheating. Cheating is always unjustifiable, and under no terms can be seen as a form of innovation, neither are there degrees of cheating, some of which are acceptable. That said, we should avoid embarking on a crusade that may damage the very pillars that sustain education and prestigious institutions, hitting those students who do play by the rules. Although eradicating cheating may be almost impossible—in the same way that we cannot prevent people from cheating on their partners—we can at least impose mechanisms and procedures to make it difficult or too risky.

To do so, we first need to clarify a conceptual issue. Normally, cheating is considered wrong because, as the Oxford Dictionary explains, cheating is “to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage”.[iii] But, as I have explained elsewhere, educators and academic managers must also point out that it is the cheater who loses out most: firstly, by potentially exposing one’s personal reputation; perhaps for life; and secondly, and more importantly from a personal point of view, by relinquishing the benefits that brings the learning process. We all know the intellectual satisfaction that results from understanding and discussing theories, ideas, and concepts. Those who take the shortcut and skip the wonders of learning are giving up a decisive part of personal development that is directly linked—I believe, in line with many philosophers—with happiness.

During a discussion with colleagues about the results of the study conducted by Donald McCabe, some of my colleagues pointed out that MBA programs are very demanding, sometimes beyond realistic expectations. To cope with these unrealistic demands, some students simply cheat. Other colleagues referred to the prevalent culture at many business schools, which emphasizes performance at any cost, thus exacerbating competition and prompting disloyalty among fellow students.

However, business educators may argue that their aim is to prepare competitive managers, not just well intentioned, sheepish professionals that are swalled by the business maelstrom.

Like other human beings, managers and business students are not saints nor demons. True, management requires a special awareness of the impact of corporations in society, as well as the responsibilities assumed with the post. Those responsibilities provide excellent managers with the opportunity to transform their jobs in one of the noblest professions worldwide.

Ethical management is equivalent to good management. Not more but not less.


[i] T. Piper, M. C. Gentile and S. Daloz Parks, Can Ethics Be Taught? Perspectives, Challenges and Approaches at Harvard Business School (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 1993), p.127.

[ii] A. Donovan, ‘Can Ethics Classes Cure Cheating?’, Harvard Business School Blogs, 14/04/2009


[iii] http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0140070#m_en_gb0140070


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